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Feuerbach's influence on "Parsifal" Part 6

Posted: Wed Jun 17, 2015 2:51 pm
by alberich00
Feuerbach's influence on "Parsifal" Part 6:

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limits of time, space, and causality. And this is precisely what happens in the Good Friday Spell, whose text is manifestly a restoration of Mother Nature, whom man, freed now from the religious illusion that he needs - and can obtain - redemption from the real world, will no longer trample. I reproduce it in some detail below so we can examine it somewhat closely to see just how far Feuerbach’s spirit seems to pervade it:

“Parsifal: How very beautiful the meadow seems today! I have come upon magic flowers which sickly twined about me to my head; yet ne’er have I seen such soft and tender blades, blossoms, flowers, nor has anything smelled so childlike sweet or spoken so dearly to me. Gurnemanz: That is the magic of Good Friday, lord!”

Here, it is clear, Parsifal is renouncing the artificial tropical garden of his art, the Flower-maiden-muses (his Fleurs de Mal, so to speak), for the sake of Mother Nature herself.

The following extended passage is Gurnemanz’s description of Parsifal’s, and mankind’s, atonement to Mother Nature, for having denied her in favor of an illusory realm of spirit which holds her in contempt. Here Gurnemanz suggests that by accepting his own mortality man can acknowledge his true place in nature and his oneness with her:

“Parsifal: Alas, the greatest Day of Pain! On which everything that blooms, breathes, lives and lives anew should, it seems, but mourn – ah, and weep. Gurnemanz: You see, it is not so. They are the repentant tears of the sinner that drop today with holy dew upon both field and meadow: thus they flourish. Now all creatures rejoice at the Redeemer’s gracious sign, and dedicate their prayer to him. Him upon the Cross they cannot see: and so they look up to Man redeemed, who feels free of his burden of sin and shame, made pure and whole by the loving sacrifice of God [i.e., that God revealed himself to be, merely, man, in Christ]: Now blades and flowers of the meadows perceive that this day no foot of man shall crush them, but just as God with heavenly patience took mercy on him, and suffered for him, so man today with pious grace spares them with gentle tread. For this, all creation then gives thanks – all that blooms and shortly withers – for Nature cleansed has gained this day her Day of Innocence.”

And of course, this is nothing more than what Erda, Mother Nature, asked Wotan - the chief god and symbol for man’s religious consciousness in the "Ring" - to do, acknowledge that all things are ephemeral and that the gods too will pass away:

“Erda: All things that are – end. A day of darkness dawns for the gods: I counsel you: shun the ring!”

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But of course neither Wotan nor his ultimate heirs, the artist-hero Siegfried and his muse Bruennhilde, shun the ring, and therefore the entire plot of Wagner’s Ring recounts how through both religious belief and artistic expression mankind got swept up in the most tragic consequences of man’s unhealing wound, Alberich’s curse on the Ring.

Specifically, the Good Friday Spell represents Parsifal’s atonement to his mother, Nature, for having broken her heart by leaving her in order to pursue the Grail, man’s longing to transcend reality in religion and art, a betrayal which caused her figurative death. The repentant sinners are all those who denied nature for the sake of an illusory spiritual existence, and later for the sake of art which strove to recreate the religious feeling of transcendence, and to deny reality. Just as in Biblical mythology God lowered his spiritual stature to enter man’s physical world as the physical Christ, and to suffer there man’s sufferings so God could empathize with and love man (as Feuerbach put it), so Gurnemanz suggests that nature itself now looks up to man, who will no longer spurn and deny it, but embrace it and all within it, all that withers and soon dies. From Feuerbach’s perspective the Christian notion that God came to earth as man, and sacrificed himself for man’s sake, represented the beginning of the end of a belief in a disembodied, mysterious, spiritual Godhead. Symbolically, God sacrifices himself so that man no longer has to put up with him, no longer has to strive futilely to be worthy to join him in spiritual redemption. The significance of Christ, for Feuerbach, is that man can recognize himself, his mortal self, in God. In Feuerbach’s view God, after all, is man’s invention. Feuerbach stated, for instance, that in order for man to purge himself of guilt, he need only find guilt and sin in God himself [#32F-TDI: p. 224]. Thus Mother Nature regains the innocence lost to her when religious man demonized her in order to posit a higher, purer, more substantial level of being, Godhead.

The wisdom obtained through the restoration of Mother Nature’s rights, and a renunciation of man’s illusion that he has, or can become, a supernatural spirit which transcends Nature, is the acknowledgment that man, a product of nature, invented God the creator, and therefore God is, himself (or herself), nothing more than Nature. As Feuerbach put it:

(9A) [FEUERBACH] “... the God of Christian monotheism is a withered, dried-out God in whom all traces of His origin in nature is effaced; there He stands like a creation out of nothing; on pain of the rod He even forbids the inevitable question: “What did God do before He created the world?” or more correctly: What was He before nature? In other words, He makes a secret of His physical origin, hiding it behind a metaphysical abstraction.” [#341F-LER: p. 321-322]

We should remember that not only the God of Genesis forbade man to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, but Lohengrin likewise forbade Elsa and everyone else to inquire after his true identity and origin (significantly, Elsa alone had the power to compel Lohengrin to reveal his identity, his origin in Nature). In both instances the reason can be found in Feuerbach’s explanation for why God “forbids the inevitable question ... ,” that the true origin of man is Nature, and therefore God, man’s invention, originates in [Page 53] Nature also. According to Feuerbach it is through reason, i.e., through natural science, the intellectual inquiry which men of faith wish to prohibit, that man can restore to mind his true relationship with Mother Nature, and his true place in the animal kingdom and the natural world:

(9B) [FEUERBACH] “To reason alone belongs the great work of the resurrection and restoration of all things and beings – universal redemption and reconciliation. Not even the unreasoning animal, the speechless plant, the unsentient stone, shall be excluded from the universal festival.” [#152F-EOC: p. 287]

And he adds:

(9C) [FEUERBACH] “The task of modern times was to prepare for a final reconciliation of spirit with nature.” [#30F-TDI: p. 211]

Curiously, Wagner’s explanation of the ultimate meaning of "The Ring of the Nibelung," i.e., the primary lesson to be learned from it, for his friend August Roeckel (early in 1854, well before Wagner tells us he first read Schopenhauer, in the Fall of 1854), is a perfectly apt paraphrase of Gurnemanz’s plea that mankind no longer trample nature, all that withers and soon dies, but rather embrace it:

“But how is this reality [of Nature] to be grasped once more, since as an imaginary whole – it had presented itself not to our feelings but solely to our intellect? It can be grasped of course only if we recognize that the essence of reality lies in its endless multiplicity. This inexhaustible multiplicity which incessantly reproduces and renews itself can be apprehended, however, by feeling [i.e., by music], which perceives it simply as a separate, ever-changing phenomenon: this sense of change is the essence of reality, whereas only what is imagined is changelessly unending [i.e., immortal]. Only what changes is real: to be real, to live – what this means is to be created, to grow, to bloom, to wither and to die; without the necessity of death, there is no possibility of life ... . Therefore, to be consumed by truth is to abandon oneself as a sentient human being to total reality: to experience procreation, growth, bloom – withering and decay, to apprehend them unreservedly, in joy and sorrow, and to [P. 303] choose to live – and die – a life of happiness and suffering. This alone is ‘to be consumed by truth’. But in order to make such a consummation possible, we must abandon completely our search for the ‘whole’ [i.e., we must no longer seek infinite satisfaction and perfection, as in our quest for the Ring and its power, or in our even more debilitating - because it is illusory - quest for reunion with God and redemption in a supernatural paradise]: the whole reveals itself to us only in the individual manifestation, for this [Page 54] alone is capable of being ‘apprehended’ in the true sense of the word; we can really ‘grasp’ a phenomenon only if we can allow ourselves to be fully absorbed by it, just as we must in turn be able to assimilate it fully within us. How is this marvellous process most fully achieved? Ask Nature! Only through love!” [#607W-{1/25-26/54}Letter to August Roeckel: SLRW, p. 302-303]

And this reconciliation of spirit with nature, this celebration of man’s recognition that both are one and the same, is precisely what is expressed in the Good Friday Spell.

In Wagner’s following remarks he paraphrases Feuerbach’s sentiments, especially in (9E) where Wagner suggests that the religious mysteries are summed up in the statement that what we call God, the divine, the supernatural, is really just Nature:

(9D)[WAGNER] “But, alas, how is culture possible when religion has such defective roots, and even terminology is so little defined that one can talk of spirit and Nature as if they were antitheses?” [#828W- {6/29/72} CD Vol. I, p. 505]

(9E) [WAGNER] “At lunch a recollection of Aeschylus’s chorus (the female hare and the eagle) causes him to remark on the nobility of this outlook, and he feels it was things like this that might have led to accusations of blasphemy against Aeschylus, this connection between holiness and Nature was probably at the bottom of the Eleusinian mysteries.” [#993W-{11/14/79} CD Vol. II, p. 395]

Wagner also embraced Feuerbach’s notion that, since Mother Nature itself is amoral, and since all that man calls good is imputed to God, and all that man considers evil is imputed to his rival Satan, and both God and Satan are nothing more than projections of the extremes of man's own nature, the true primal being, Mother Nature, is neither good nor evil:

“R. spoke recently of the heresy of the Marcionites, which consisted in recognizing a primal being who was neither completely good nor completely evil; admiration for this sensible form of cognition.” [#854W- {7/1/74} CD Vol. I, p. 770]

And in the following passage we find Wagner’s elaboration of Feuerbach’s concept of a universal festival of reconciliation in which man will embrace his status as a part of nature, both animate and inanimate. In this instance Wagner celebrates Darwin’s idea that man evolved from animals and is therefore a product of nature, not the product of a divine personality:

“The wisdom of the Brahmins, nay, of every cultured pagan race, is lost to us: with the disowning of our true relation to the beasts, we see an [Page 55] animalized – in the worst sense – and more than an animalized, a devilized world before us. (...) ... an honest inquirer, a careful breeder and comparer, a scientific friend of beasts [Darwin], laid once more open to us men the teachings of primeval wisdom, according to which the same thing breathes in animals that lends us life ourselves; ay, showed us past all doubt that we descend from them. In the spirit of our unbelieving century, this knowledge may prove our surest guide to a correct estimate of our relation to the animals; and perhaps it is on this road alone, that we might again arrive at a real religion, as taught to us by the Redeemer and testified by his example, the religion of true Human Love.” [#986W- {10/79} Letter to E. von Weber ‘Against Vivisection’: PW Vol. VI, p. 204]

And it is precisely through man’s acknowledgment of his true identity as a product of mother nature, and a member of the animal kingdom who therefore need no longer strive futilely to transcend his natural limits, that, as Feuerbach says below, he can free himself from religion’s “... excessive demands and desires, such as the desire for immortality,” and thus close man’s unhealing wound, and end Alberich’s curse on his ring:

(9F) [FEUERBACH] “... it is only through nature that man can become free of all morbidly excessive demands and desires, such as the desire for immortality. ‘Learn to know nature, recognize it as your mother; then you will descend peacefully into the earth when the time comes.’ “ [LER: p. 37]

Through this means Parsifal ends Kundry’s and Klingsor’s curse on the Grail Knights, and heals Amfortas’s wound.

It was at this point that I concluded my lecture on 5/30/07, due to time limits. My current paper doesn’t suffer this disadvantage, so I’ll close with a few more insights into the Parsifal libretto provided by Feuerbach, and by Wagner’s paraphrases of Feuerbach.


I noted previously that during the second half of his life Wagner increasingly came to critique his entire artistic endeavor, suggesting that in this life of consoling illusion he had built for himself and others he might be neglecting the really big philosophic questions about the meaning and purpose of it all. In the following extract it seems self-evident that in the character of Parsifal Wagner presented to us his notion of the “Schopenhauerian saint,” who has broken free from Wagner’s art. In the Schopenhauerian Saint Wagner of course posits his Buddhist-Schopenhauerian ideal man, who upon gaining enlightenment realizes that all as yet unenlightened beings are in [Page 56]
unthinking service to the selfish Will, and can presumably conquer this subservience to the Will by recognizing his oneness with all the diverse forms of life in the world, and by so doing eliminate his egoism. This acknowledgment of man’s oneness with the cosmos, according to Schopenhauer’s theory of morality, logically leads to compassion for all the living. Of course, acknowledgment of one’s oneness with all life could just as easily lead to one’s embrace of what seems to be a universal egoism underlying all motivation in the animate world. This is a problem Wagner dealt with occasionally but left out of "Parsifal," in which he wished to leave us his final, definitive illustration of the possibility of a meaningful life within the bounds of a natural world.

Wagner describes his art below as, in effect, a cowardly evasion of the really important issue in life, that most (perhaps all) motivation for action in the animate world, and especially in human life, seems to be selfishness and egoism. Wagner’s great philosophic problem was to show how it might be possible for selfless love to be a property or potential of human nature, when ruthless egoism (of either the individual, or any particular group to which the individual sees himself as belonging) seems to have been the primary virtue selected for in evolution, and particularly in human history. Wagner suggests here that acknowledgment of this has been more or less unbearable (Wotan found it so unbearable that he informed Bruennhilde he dare not speak it aloud even to himself), and that his artistic world of illusion, his veil of Maya, has hidden the fateful truth from him and others:

(10A) [WAGNER] “ ... all I could probably ... become, were I really able to break free from my art, would be a Schopenhauerian saint! (...)
(...) this artistic nature of mine is ... a daemon which repeatedly blinds me to the clearest insights and draws me into a maelstrom of confusion, passion and folly ... . (...) when I see an animal being tormented: I cannot begin to describe what I then feel and how, as if by magic, I am suddenly permitted an insight into the essence of life itself in all its undivided coherency ... . It is at moments such as these that I see the ‘veil of Maya’ completely lifted, and what my eyes then see is terrible, so dreadful that ... I suddenly ask myself whether I can go on living; but it is at this moment that another veil descends ... which ... is ultimately always the same ‘veil of Maya’, in all its artistic forms, which casts me back into the world of self-deception ... .” [#630W-{5/12/55} Letter to Jacob Sulzer: SLRW, p. 338-339]

Wagner’s remarks above call to mind the fact that, when Wotan confessed to Bruennhilde that he was prepared to accept the appalling end [“das Ende”] which Erda had foreseen, in which the gods would go down to destruction at the hands of Alberich’s curse on the Ring, Bruennhilde gave Wotan’s hope to redeem the gods from this fate a new lease on life, by, figurately speaking, giving birth to Siegfried the artist-hero. It is in their loving union, i.e., the artist-hero Siegfried’s [Page 57] loving union with his unconscious muse of inspiration, Bruennhilde, that religious man’s longing for transcendent meaning can live on temporarily in secular art. Similarly, just when Tristan and Isolde are prepared for death, Brangaene gives them a new lease on life in which they can, for a time, enjoy loving union (i.e., unconscious artistic inspiration), before the religious mystery contained in that union is finally exposed completely to the light of day (i.e., becomes conscious).

This passage also calls to mind Feuerbach’s and Wagner’s observations about the creative spirit’s need for a veil of Maya, of ignorance and self-deception, to hide the world’s misery, so that paralysis by fear and angst can be overcome in order to unleash blissful creativity. This is clearly the case in the contrast between Wotan’s paralysis as described by him to Bruennhilde in his confession, and Siegfried’s joyous, fearless gift of artistic creativity. Bruennhilde, by hearing Wotan’s confession and thus allowing him to repress the conscious knowledge which has paralyzed him, employs her magic to throw a veil of Maya over him so that he can be reborn as the fearless, loving Siegfried, whose heroism stems from his ignorance of self and unconcern about the twilight of the gods (i.e., secular artists’ unconcern about threats to religious faith). We noted that just as Bruennhilde holds this terrible hoard of knowledge for Siegfried and thus protects him from Wotan’s paralyzing fear, so Kundry holds Parsifal’s knowledge of his true identity for him. Parsifal, however, becomes fully self-aware, aware of his guilt at perpetuating religion’s denial of Mother Nature, at the moment of Kundry’s kiss, and casts off the consoling veil of Maya to fully, consciously embrace the terrible truth.

As further evidence that Wagner became increasingly engaged in a critique of his own artistic nature in his later years, we find in the following extract from a letter to Mathilde Wesendonck his observation that Buddha excluded art, presumably because art was a distraction from the possibility of enlightenment:

“My child, the glorious Buddha was no doubt right when he strictly excluded art. Is there anyone who feels more clearly than I that it is this unhappy art that everlastingly restores me to life’s torment and all the contradictions of existence? If I did not have this wondrous gift of an over-predominant visual imagination, I could follow my heart’s instinctive urge, in accordance with my own clear-eyed insight, -- and become a saint ... !” [#663W-{10/5/58} Letter to Mathilde Wesendonck: SLRW, p. 425-426]

And Wagner could not possibly be more explicit than he is in the following observation quoted by Cosima, that the path from religion to art, which was the path illustrated in the "Ring" in Wotan’s (religion’s) withdrawal from life in favor of his heir Siegfried (the secular artist-hero), he now (during the period in which he completed "Parsifal") renounces in favor of a new religion of feeling which apparently will embrace nature, and man’s nature, without the consolation of illusion or self-deceit.

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“[He tells me the thought he has written down: ‘The path from religion to art bad, from art to religion good.’ “ [#1004W-{1/13/80} CD Vol. II, p. 424]

In the following illuminating illustration of Wagner’s critique of his own art, Wagner contrasts the permanent imperturbability of the saint with the inspired artist’s dual life, in which he either enjoys the ecstasy of unconscious artistic creativity, or suffers the dregs of mundane existence. This brings to mind Kundry’s dual life of alternating rebirths as both the muse for art and the penitent servant of the Grail:

“One state surpasses his [the inspired composer], and one alone, -- the Saint’s, and chiefly through its permanence and imperturbability; whereas the clairvoyant ecstasy of the musician has to alternate with a perpetually recurrent state of individual consciousness, which we must account the more distressful the higher has his inspiration carried him above all bounds of individuality.” [#771W-{9-12/70} "Beethoven": PW Vol. V, p. 72- 73]

And in the following passage, in which Wagner describes his life as an artist as both his blessing and his curse, we are reminded of Wagner’s description of the conflict Amfortas suffers when looking upon the Holy Grail, for Amfortas experiences “heavenly salvation and eternal damnation:”

“[P. 359] I am only an artist: -- that is my blessing and my curse; otherwise I should gladly become a saint ... .” [#644W-{8/23/56} Letter to August Roeckel: SLRW, p. 359]

I also noted previously Wagner’s equation of his art with play, or games. In the passage below Wagner identifies his own art with the Grecian spirit, which according to Wagner evaded the great philosophic issues of the meaning of life for the sake of the joy in playfully re-shaping the world artistically. Again, according to Wagner his blissful art has ignored the terrible reality of egoism at the root of human motivation:

(10B) [WAGNER] “[P. 229] In the workings of the Grecian spirit we ... are made spectators of a kind of pastime, a play in whose vicissitudes the joy of Shaping seeks to counteract the awe of Knowing. Content with this, rejoicing in the semblance, ... it asks not after the goal of Being ... . ... what but a mummery at last could such delight well be, when we find that blood and massacre ... still rage throughout the human race; that violence is master ... ? But a heartless mummery must the concernment with Art ever be, and all enjoyment of the freedom thereby sought from the Will’s distress, so long as nothing more was to be found in art ... .” [#1029W-{6-8/80} "Religion and Art": PW Vol. VI, p. 229-230]

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These various observations by Wagner dramatically support our thesis that ‘Parsifal’ is, among other things, Wagner’s critique of his own art, from which the character Parsifal’s actions in Act Three presumably offer redemption. And this explains why Kundry has to die in the end. Kundry dies as Parsifal unveils the Grail, nevermore to be hidden, because as the muse of unconscious religious revelation and artistic inspiration, Kundry no longer has any function to serve in a culture which fully embraces objective truth. There is no longer any need to hide the truth behind the veil of Maya, which is just a metaphor for religious faith and art. The days of unconscious artistic inspiration are over, and Kundry’s day is done.

The following section provides a closer look at what Parsifal does to bring about this redemption.


We encountered Feuerbach’s observation a few moments ago that the God in Christianity’s brand of monotheism is a god who denies his true origin in nature, and forbids intellectual inquiry into his origins. This passage, and the passage below, which suggests that the barrier with which religious faith confronts intellectual inquiry into the roots of faith, the religious mysteries, ought to be lifted, call to mind Lohengrin’s prohibition on knowledge, his demand that the heroine-muse Elsa never inquire about his true identity and origin, and Elsa’s insistence on knowing Lohengrin’s secret:

(11A) [FEUERBACH] “... no barrier to human knowledge can excuse us. In the realm of nature, to be sure, there are still many things we do not understand; but the secrets of religion spring from man himself, and he is capable of knowing them down to their remotest depths. (...) The elimination of this lie is the condition for a new, energetic mankind.” [#284F-LER: p. 219]

In the romantic opera "Lohengrin," of course, Lohengrin is Parsifal’s son, which, as Nietzsche pointed out, begs the question how a Knight of the Grail, who presumably has sworn an oath of celibacy and chastity, could produce a son. In my prior talk to the Boston Wagner Society entitled ‘How Elsa Taught Wagner the Way to Siegfried,’ I explored the notion that Elsa, as a metaphor for Feuerbach’s concept of Eve as a heroic figure who brought about the end of innocence and faith, is the muse for Wagner’s art as heir to lost religious faith. Wagner proclaimed in ‘A Communication To My Friends’ that Elsa’s insistence that Lohengrin share with her, in love’s night, the secret of his origin and identity, so she can help him protect the secret of his identity, was Wagner’s inspiration for the revolution which terminated the phase in which he produced his romantic operas, and brought forth his music-dramas. In that paper I noted that, where Lohengrin refused to let Elsa hear his confession of his true identity and origin, Wotan on the contrary agreed to share with his daughter Bruennhilde the “unspoken” secret of his confession. I explained how this contrast between Lohengrin’s refusal and Wotan’s [Page 60] acquiescence is the metaphorical basis for the transition from Wagner’s romantic operas, where music still has only a sort of mechanical relation to the dramatic text, to the music-dramas, in which music and poetic text are fused in a union whose metaphor is the loving union of hero with heroine. Wotan’s acceptance of Bruennhilde’s proffer to hear his confession represents the redemptive union of the poetic drama (the man) with music (the woman), through which man’s terrible history of egoism feels redeemed.

But now, Parsifal must renounce this special kind of love, renounce union with the muse of unconscious artistic inspiration, in order to reveal the religious mysteries, the heretofore unconscious source of religious revelation and artistic inspiration, by making what formerly was unconscious rise to consciousness (much as Alberich said that the gods should beware the day when his army of night brings the Nibelung Hoard from the silent depths to the light of day). He can only do this by rejecting union with his potential (and former) muse Kundry, so that he can wake what has slept until now, man’s hoard of knowledge of his true origin in nature, and his identity as a natural, physical being. Therefore Parsifal tells all present after he heals Amfortas’s wound with the point of that holy Spear with which Klingsor, with Kundry’s aid, made the wound in the first place: “No more shall it be closed: Reveal the Grail – open the shrine!” This final act of blessing seems more than just a repeat of the ceremony Amfortas and others before him had been performing: Parsifal’s proclamation seems to invoke something new and unprecedented, with a feeling of finality. It is as if the Grail is being revealed never to be concealed again.

The religious mystery which Parsifal now exposes to the light of day, i.e., to man’s reason, his reflective consciousness, may well be what Wagner discloses in the following passage, that the Nibelung Hoard (identified with egoism, the lust for power and acquisitiveness) is the true identity and origin of the Holy Grail:

(11B) [WAGNER] “In truth the legend of the Holy Grail ... makes its entry on the world at the very time when the Kaiserhood [i.e., earthly power] attained its more ideal direction, and the Nibelung’s Hoard accordingly was losing more and more in material worth, to yield to a higher spiritual content. This spiritual ascension of the Hoard into the Grail was accomplished in the German conscience ... . (...) The quest of the Grail henceforth replaces the struggle for the Nibelungen-Hoard ... .” [#373W-{6-8/48} "The Wibelungen" – Revised summer of 1849: PW Vol. VII, p. 293-294]

In other words, the Holy Grail, i.e., man’s futile longing to transcend the real, physical world by positing a supernatural, divine realm of redemption from it, is identical with the Nibelung Hoard, i.e., the egoistic basis of earthly power. Both Grail and Hoard arise from man’s Ring-curse, i.e., the nature of the human mind itself, whose gift of imagination and abstraction allowed man, even compelled man, to seek infinite satisfaction of natural desires, and permanent freedom from sin, death, and pain, but without result. The only difference between them is that the Grail represents satisfaction